Have the 2018 Winter Games become the ‘Pyongyang Olympics’?

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — With a spectacular and sparkling opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics, South Korea has predictably excelled in showcasing both sports and setting. Yet, given that security concerns on the divided peninsula dominated the nervous countdown to the Winter Games, the Seoul government at least in the short run, was able to finesse and perhaps coerce some North Korean participation. The question becomes but at what price?

After a dangerous military face-off prompted by North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile firings, Pyongyang’s mercurial rulers have decided to launch a charm offensive for the Olympics. Offering an olive branch of patriotic Symbolism, a joint women’s hockey team and a vivacious cheerleading contingent, the North was able to muscle its way into the South’s team as well as the hearts of some South Koreans.

South Korean President Moon Jae-In talks with Kim Yo-jong, the poweful younger sister of North Korea's Kim Jong-Un, on Feb. 11, 2018. / Yonhap / Reuters
South Korean President Moon Jae-In talks with Kim Yo-jong, the poweful younger sister of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, on Feb. 11, 2018. / Yonhap / Reuters

A united Korean team marched into the stadium under a generic flag, a kind of Kumbaya Korea theme, sporting a map of the peninsula but not showing the South’s proud Taegeuk symbol.

Kim Jo-Jong, the sister of the North Korean dictator, visited the Games in a high-profile bid gaining both profile and legitimacy. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In has been invited to visit North Korea.

Seoul’s respected Korea Times newspaper opined the games could become, “Pyongyang Olympics,” alluding to the North’s successful hijacking of the message.

Clearly South Korea’s left-leaning Moon administration is bending over backwards to please and likely appease Pyongyang.

On the one hand it’s understandable given the South’s deep concerns over the risk of military confrontation on the peninsula. Nonetheless the Northern threat has morphed from a danger to the South, to a wider nuclear threat to East Asia and the world, especially to Japan and even the United States.

But blood is thicker than politics. Koreans, South and North, are kith and kin. That’s why we see this nauseating deference to the DPRK and it’s political icons right down to Kim Jong-Un’s smiling sister, this siren of an odious socialist regime.

Though North and South Korea are two distinct and fundamentally different political states and systems, they remain One Nation, sharing a common language, culture and customs. Though artificially divided at the end of WWII, the North, the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has remained a hardline neo-Stalinist regime under the Kim family’s Marxist monarchy.

The South, the Republic of Korea, has evolved from a once authoritarian government into a thriving democracy in the last generation.

Ironically there was an Olympic connection to South Korean democracy. The 1988 Summer Olympics proved as the surprising catalyst for political change. South Korea’s modernization in the 1970’s and 1980’s pushed the envelope for wider political freedoms. In the years before the Games, South Korea was rocked by widespread and often violent student demonstrations.

Domestically the government of the day knew that such a turbulent backdrop to the Games would be an national embarrassment on world TV screens, thus major concessions to democratization were implemented to largely defuse demonstrations. A peaceful Olympics followed and South Korea gained its coveted place on the global stage.

Internationally, as a way to insure the Olympics from outside interference, South Korea focused on promoting diplomatic and trade links with the former Soviet Union and with China. The logic was that if both Moscow and Beijing, variously the patrons of Pyongyang, were brought into the Games, they would keep Pyongyang in checkmate from causing any violence. The strategy worked.

Fast forward to PyeongChang. Contemporary South Korea is a fractious democracy but a prosperous socio/economic success story. South Korean per capita income stands at $30,000. The North remains an economic basket case where the regime pushes neutrons over nutrition for its own population. The South exports cars, electronics and K-Pop. The North imports humanitarian aid.

Stressing that theme, South Korea’s President Moon has embarked on a wishful diplomatic quest with the DPRK as to narrow the chasm with the totalitarian North. Nonetheless, given Seoul’s military treaty commitment with Washington, any impending South Korean concessions to communist North Korea raise genuine political concerns. Are Seoul and Pyongyang trying to do a political end run round both Beijing and Washington in playing to the alluring nostalgia of One Korea? Will Moon’s enthusiasm outshine the darkness of the North’s human rights horrors?

UN General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak stressed the Olympic torch is “a symbol of peace, a symbol of youth, a symbol of hope.”

Seoul has called the PyongChang Games the “Peace Olympics”. But at what price?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]